Institutional AND Organic? Is it Possible?

I am a both/and kinda guy.

In the spirit of John Wesley, I tend to try to hold most things in tension whenever possible: piety and social justice; worship and evangelism; public and private; organic and institutional.

It is this final category that I would like to expound upon a bit here. I began reading Frank Viola’s book Reimaging Church today. I knew what I was getting into when I opted to bring this particular book to Starbucks with me, but I went ahead and did it anyway. Viola is an important voice in the ecclesial conversation taking place in evangelicalism today, but I am afraid he goes too far.

Like so many really smart people that I have been reading lately, Viola seems to have a need to throw down the gauntlet and demand that the reader choose which side they’re on. Either one abandons the institutional church entirely (as he did) and embrace an organic ecclesial structure, or one remains a part of the institutional church system which he claims is antithetical to New Testament ecclesial development, and thereby misses out on opportunities to truly experience church as it was intended to be.

Is there no room for compromise here? Is it not possible to develop organic communities of faith and mission that thrive within an institutional ecclesial structure?

I speak as one who has so much at stake in this, so I will seem biased: and I am! I spent thousands of dollars and several years as a husband and father of two small children, taking graduate courses and working full-time to earn a Master of Divinity degree in order to fulfill God’s call on my life to ordained ministry. My Master of Divinity degree credentials me for one thing, and one thing only: ordained ministry in the institutional church.

Of course, this will sound like I am endorsing the institutional church solely based upon my need for a job, but that is not entirely true. Of course, I need an income; of course I need to provide for my family; but, if God were to reveal to me today that the institutional church was irrelevant, and that I was spinning my wheels serving it, I would leave. But I haven’t sensed God telling me that. I will agree that the local church is not what God intended; but I would argue that nothing is. Every person, organization, and system in this flawed world is … well, flawed! We’re all broken and in need of God’s Spirit to bring new life; this includes the institutional church.

Having said that, there is certainly a need for the institutional church to consider the value of innovation and “reimagination.” I agree with Viola that the church needs to be reimagined, but reimagination does not necessarily mean abolition.

If John Wesley were around, he would challenge us to consider how to look at the strengths of both an institutional and organic model of church and then work towards ways of implementing the best of both into a functional hybrid that reveals Christ to the world in new and creative ways.

Christ commissioned the first apostles to go forth and make disciples. They had spent three years in the best seminary that money could never buy (the original “Masters Seminary.”) The church needs leaders – trained leaders – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers as the apostle Paul said, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. The institutional church could use to take a serious look at her mission, this much is clear, but a serious look should not lead to dissolution of the organization that has come into being over the past 1700 or so years. A fresh look should lead to the formation of organic groups and a newfound missional ethos; a fresh look should recognize that the world has changed, that the church is not the bastion of hope and spiritual enlightenment that she once was, that she must work hard to reintroduce Christ to an ever increasing secular world.

Can the church be all that Christ wants her to be without dissolving the institution en masse? I think she can.

Viola writes; “I have a dream that countless churches will be transformed from high-powered business organizations into spiritual families – authentic Christ-centered communities – where the members know one another intimately, love one another unconditionally, bleed for one another deeply, and rejoice with one another unfailingly” (28).

So do I.

The question remains whether this dream can become a reality through the institution we know of as the church.
I think it can.
Only time will tell, I suppose.
In the meantime, I'll keep on doing what God has called me to do and serve my church.


  1. I have been struggling with this for years! I grew up very traditional Methodist. Doxologies were part of church, responding in unison, reading the Methodist Hymn ahead of time to prepare for church the next Sunday... that was what it was all about. At about 11, I started to get really bored with church. I was one of the prominent vocalists in the choir, but was so bored with singing the SAME type of song over and over again. It wasn't that their message was misconstrued or anything like that. It just felt like I was singing to entertain... not singing with my own passion. We had a "Freedom" service where the youth led the service. I had JUST started as a youth in the church and was chosen to open the service with a song... OF CHOICE!! There was one song in particular that I could not turn down... It was a Christian ROCK song! You should have seen the poor congregation when I opened the service. After that, we had several testimonies, rap performances, puppet ministry, and finally a youth dance (where we went out and danced with the congregation). We were SO terrified of the reaction we were going to get afterward... but we really didn't care. Because THIS was how we praised our Lord!! THIS was US!! THIS was who God MADE US to BE!! Not sitting in the pew... listening... agreeing. He made us (my generation in particular) to argue (as my parents would agree). He made us special... we were defiant and rebellious for a reason! BUT... the youth program THRIVED at my church... and soon... the elderly were coming in on special days of the week JUST to watch us praise the LORD!! They said it made them feel "youthful and young" again. It made them remember how it felt to KNOW we were saved!!
    So... institutional or organic. Well... why can't we be organically institutional?
    Or... Institutionally organic...
    In my opinion... church is a time to BUILD your faith... therefore, you need to build with what the good Lord gave you. If you feel drawn to sit in the pew and listen... by ALL means DO IT! Worship from the comfort of your pew!
    But if you feel compelled to dance and sing and shout to the Lord and scream because you are THAT saved... then you know what... DO IT!
    God is a perfect example of how we, as parents, should love our children...


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